Mt Mitchell, 6,684 feet, the highest peak east of the continental divide - there's just something about high peaks and ridges. They "make their own weather" and offer "top of the world" views. Many folks have hiked them, and when you meet up with one, and start talking about "this trail" and "that view", it's like you're "there". You can be at work, on break, in the cafeteria, but while you're re-living trail-tales, it's almost like you're there. Ahh, mother nature!
This particular BP (back-pack) trip was with my lady (an extraordinary BP partner). We "staged" the night before hitting the trail at Hemrick Inn, a lovely old mountain home on Hiway 80 that turned 4 upstairs bedrooms into ‘units’ with bathrooms, porches, and individual "themes" (you'll have to go see for yourself !). The downstairs is "common" kitchen, library/tv room, and parlor room. We like to "stage" close to the trailhead for an early start - and a shower finish! If my lady's along, we'll "stage" as comfortably as possible. If it's "us guys", anyplace near a shower will do. Don't want to end a BP trip with a ride back home in a "stinky" vehicle!
We set out at "0-dark-thirty" on a South Toe River trail. You park at "the park" (Black Mountain Recreation Area) and take a casual stroll thru the campground to the trailhead - "ahh, how pleasant". But wait, what's this, the trail is starting up? Yeah, and you better get used to it, 'cause that's the name of this game - ."Going UP"! If you don't know what a "switchback" is, you're getting ready to find out! Which brings to mind my dear friend, craige "BP" lowe, and his staunch "Hey, no cutbacks on the switchbacks!" reminders. God rests his soul.
En-route (beat feet)
Enroute you try to find your stride and pace yourself. Some folks like to haul butt (race?) for 50 minutes and break for 15 minutes. I’m more of a 2 to 3 hour grind, then a 15 or 20 minute break. Seems like everybody gets to the end about the same time, so I guess it doesn’t really matter how you do it. We have fun identifying trees and plants, eating wild stuff (that we’re sure of), enjoying nature, and catching up on what is going on in each other’s life. During bear season, it’s a good idea to ‘make some noise’, so you don’t come up on a bear, unawares, and startle them. Yes, this trip is during ‘bear season’, and yes, we were loaded for bear. You always wonder about what you’ve heard, that shooting a bear with anything less than a 45, "you’ll just really make ‘em mad". The word is, that any smaller caliber and the bear’s fat will simply ‘close in’ behind the round, doing little to slow the bear down. But doing lots to rile him! What with firearms being illegal in the park, shooting a bear is the absolute last option.
Are we there yet ?
Seems like they have added a couple more switchbacks every time we hike Mt Mitchell. What do you mean, we’re just getting older !? It’s only 5.6 miles, and we’re stopping short for the night! Folks, I can think of 12 to 15 mile hikes that aren’t nearly this tough. Hiking Mt Mitchell is an accomplishment, any way you get there!
We arrive at Camp Alice, our stop for the night. There is a 3-sided stone shelter - the 4th side is open, similar to those found on the AT thru the GSMNP (Great Smokey Mountains Nat’l Park). We call them ‘Adirondack’ shelters. In the GSMNP the 4th side, rather than open, is chain-link with a door - bears. The shelter is about 9 feet deep and 12 feet wide. Across the back 6 feet, from side to side, are double-decker sleeping ‘accommodations’ (board construction). The front 3 feet across the shelter are clear. We off-load our heavy gear, except food, to make our intentions known - ‘we’re staying here tonight’. Then we do a little exploring with light packs. Ahh, walking is so much easier! About 100 yards north (up hill) we discover a small frame shack about the size of our shelter. The windows are boarded over and the door is locked, with U.S. Gov’t No Trespassing signs all around. Humm, never saw this before. We head back to camp, hungry, ready to eat and settle in for the night. Tomorrow, the summit!
After a leisurely dinner and clean up, it was coming towards dusk and time to ‘hang’ the food bag. I hadn’t taken 6 steps, and there he was, THE BEAR. About 65 feet away, on all fours, looking dead at me. Me, the guy holding the bag full of food. He just ‘appeared’ from over a bolder/rise at the northwest edge of Camp Alice clearing. I calmly announced, "bear, the last thing we want to do is shoot him". I never took my eyes off him, and heard from behind, ‘I see him, I’m ready’. I thought to myself, ‘thank God, she didn’t go berserk’. THE BEAR took 3 strides towards me and stood up. Initially, on all fours, he didn’t look so bad. Standing up, he was taller than me (6’) and looked real bad. I had no idea a southeast black bear was this big. He went back down on fours, turned around, and walked back to where I first saw him. Stopped, turned around to look at me, and stood up again. Down on fours, 3 strides towards me, and up again. This repeated once more. I’m thinking he’s deciding whether to inspect us first-hand, when he leaves the way he came.
I hurriedly hung the food and went back to the shelter. We had a small fire just out front, and I’m thinking, now, we’ll have to keep it going all night. The more we think about it, realizing we’re already beat, we remember the Gov’t shack. It’s coming on dusk. We decide to make for the shack, 100 yards due north. We find it. We break in. We find a stove, refrigerator, table, chairs, and built in bunks. We dropped our packs and shoved the refrigerator and stove against the door. Whew, our first pause from the past 30-sum minutes of adrenaline. Our breathing starts to calm down. Uncle Sam, thank you.
We were tired before, now we were whooped. "Did you hear that? There, what was that?" You guessed it, it’s dark and THE BEAR has found us. And he wants in. It dawns on me that the bear’s indecision back at Camp Alice had resolved into waiting for dark. Just how cunning are these animals? For the next 15 minutes the bear circles the shack, clawing and pounding. We stayed very quiet, and very close to one another. He presumably lost interest and left. Nonetheless, we bunked close and stayed awake all night. We found a wall calendar that was a couple years old, and upon investigation determined the shack was used by NC State Univ acid-rain researchers. We were glad to see someone was taking an interest. Come daybreak, we packed up and went outside to see the claw marks, everywhere, all around the shack.
We hadn’t come this far to be run off by a bear, so it was "to the summit". Besides, we didn’t have any food (never found that hang bag) and hopefully we could buy some kind of snack up top.
Camp Alice is gone (probably because bears started making it a regular stop), the ‘shack’ is gone, but our memories are forever.
Lord, thank you for a safe trip.
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